Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Lahoud (13), defender Fabinho (33), midfielder Michael Farfan (21) and forward Conor Casey (6) try to block a free kick during the first half of an MLS soccer match against Sporting KC in Kansas City, Kan., Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. (AP Photo)
Homefield advantage is one of the most popular talking points in any sport.
In many of those sports, there is a tangible advantage to being the home team. Home baseball teams get to hit last and can even alter their stadiums to suit their strengths. Home hockey teams get to make the last line change and play the matchup game. Home football teams urge their fans to make noise when opponents are on offense and hinder play-calling at the line.
In soccer, people love to talk about loud stadiums, intimidating atmospheres and bumpy pitches. But in reality, there really is no practical advantage to being the home team. Sure, fans are loud, and occasionally you have to deal with a turf field on the road (I'm looking at you, Seattle, Portland and New England). But in reality, there isn't really any play-calling that can be prevented by crowd noise, and as long as you avoid the flying bags of urine at the Azteca, you can play the same game you play at home.
The problem is that nearly every single person in the soccer world thinks otherwise. More than any sport, you'll hear coaches and players readily admit to "playing for a result" on the road. Or "we're happy to get out of here with a point."
And it's not all quotes and rhetoric. Teams openly admit to changing their tactics and formations just to get that road point or simply to give themselves a chance. No one is seemingly worse in that regard than John Hackworth.
Last weekend in Kansas City, Hackworth trotted out a very defensive-minded formation, going with Michael Lahoud and leaving Jack McInerney and Sebastien Le Toux on the bench. In many ways it made perfect sense against a strong team like Sporting. And in the end, the Union got three crucial points that put them back closer (at least in my book) to a 50/50 chance of making the playoffs.
The problem comes with the Union come back to PPL Park, as they will Saturday against a VERY bad Toronto FC team.
As I wrote last week, soccer fans expect to see a fun style and they want to see goals. Coaches -- and likely players -- know this. So the pressure amps up at home, and people like Hackworth know they are "supposed" to win at home. Not just win, but win "with style," and give the fans something to cheer about.
Players also likely know this, meaning wing backs like Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis fly forward a little more often to join the attack. Or midfielders go for the longer, more dangerous home run pass.
If you watched any of Friday's game in Kansas City, you could tell that the Union were more than happy to sit back and let Sporting possess the ball. They stayed home defensively and played an ugly game, "parking the bus" in the back and waiting for a chance to counter-attack. Eventually, it led to a win.
This Saturday night, against a bad team at PPL Park, Hackworth will more than likely name an attack-minded roster. He'll go with two strikers instead of one, likely sit Lahoud and invite Williams, Gaddis or Fabinho to go forward up the wing.
It hasn't worked.
The Union have scored just five more goals at home this season than their opponents -- the third-worst differential in the league behind basement-dwellers Chivas USA and Toronto FC. On the road, however, the Union have a goal differential of minus-six -- a number that while seemingly unimpressive, ranks in the top third of the league.
I'm not arguing that Hackworth should bunker in at home and play for a lucky win. I want to see goals as much as anyone else. But there needs to be a middle ground. And there needs to be a way for the Union to score goals at home without leaving gaping holes in the back.
The Union tied Toronto back in April at PPL Park. Toronto was just as bad back then as they are now.
Hackworth can't afford a draw on Saturday night. And if that means he has to win ugly, then he needs to ignore the expectations and do whatever it takes.